Letter From the Ombudsman

On the difference between a Bradford and a Martini, j-school, and the Chicago Tribune.


in Archive


So I’m just settling into work at my Remington, around 11 am, on a lovely southern New Jersey morning — you know the kind, when dawn’s rosy fingers creep up over the Oyster Creek Nuclear Power Station. For one moment you almost believe the whole world’s not going to Hades in a handbasket. Then someone starts banging on the goddamned door and you realize you’re just kidding yourself.

“What fresh hell is this?” as my old flame Dorothy Parker used to
say. (Ah, Dorothy, all I can do is apologize for that time I snapped
your garter. It’s true, it’s true, old Owen was a garter-snapper in his

Anyway, it was the damned courier from The Smart Set. When I
open the door some beatnik slouches into the parlor with the weekly bag
full of electronic mails for yours truly. I could tell right away that
this kid was a real rocket scientist. Hadn’t even printed out my mail
on 20 lb. bond like I like, but rather on this cheap, thin, dull
parchment — in my day, you wouldn’t have even wrapped a hoagie in that

So the beatnik sort of hovers around the Remington, slack-jawed,
with his hand out, probably looking for a tip. Says he writes part-time for an
alt newsweekly.” I’m not sure what the hell that means, but from the
way he explained things — rock-and-roll reviews, conspiracy theories,
“Art” — it sounds like one of those free papers you pick up in the
city. Free because they’ve got those ads for tranny hookers in the back.

Instead of a tip, which I know this beatnik will probably blow on
goofballs or bennies, I decide to give him a free lesson at the Owen
Hatteras School of Journalism. Lesson Number One: Mix us up a couple of Martinis.

What a disaster! First of all, the kid says he doesn’t usually
drink. Then, he reaches for the vodka instead of the gin. Then he adds
too much vermouth. And the final straw: He shakes the goddamn Martini.

Class dismissed.

What are they teaching these kids in journalism school today? In my
day, we didn’t need the AP Stylebook to tell you that a Martini is
always stirred. And if you shook it, it was called a Bradford. And if
you made Mencken a Bradford, he’d take you out back and then you’d
never shake anything with gin in it again. Of course, that was Mencken.
Always a bastard.

Anyway, once I chased that beatnik out the door, the day’s work was
shot. So I built myself another Martini and read some of the
out-of-town papers, just to catch up on what some of my fellow
ombudsmen are up to.

Difficult business, this work of the ombudsman. That’s why you need
an experienced newspaperman like me to do this job and not some
fresh-faced Jimmy Olsen who doesn’t know his ass from his elbow.

I know, I know: These days, everyone who once took a journalism
class — and everyone who knows someone who once took a journalism class
— plays media watchdog on the World Wide Web. Dilettantes. That’s what
I call them. Wah, wah, wah, media bias! Wah, wah, wah, doctored quotes!
Wah, wah, wah, anonymous sources! What a bunch of pantywaists these
online watchdogs are. In my day, you’d never make it out the typing
pool with that sort of bitching and moaning.

But if you really want to see how hard ombudsmen work, just take a gander at a column that ran today in the mighty Chicago Tribune.
It comes from the golden pen of Timothy J. McNulty, a fellow member of
our fraternity. They call him the “Public Editor” but that’s just PC
police at work. (Hey killjoys, here’s a suggestion for you: ombudsmyn.)

Anyway, just look at the McNulty’s hard-hitting investigation of his own paper’s op-ed pages:

Almost nothing in the paper makes the blood boil faster than an infuriating op-ed column.

Unless you agree with it.

Provoking a strong response is what makes a good op-ed page.
Unlike news reporters, columnists are expected to present strong
opinions. While some are obstreperous and blatantly political, others
invoke nothing more than sweet reason, but all have a point of view.

Several months ago, I asked Marcia Lythcott, who edits this
Commentary page, if she aims for balance among columnists, whether the
issue is political or not.

Lythcott said she seeks out opinionated voices among the 100 or
so submissions she gets every day but her goal isn’t a daily balance.
She said it’s best to look at the page over a week or a month’s time.

“Readers look at that day’s page and get livid,” she said, “I tell them you don’t read just one page of a book, do you?”

So I looked at the last 30 days.

Wow. Thirty days of research. Back in my day, we called that a book. Maybe two.

I’d also like to doff my cap to McNulty for his prose style. For
instance, look at his glorious use of the one-sentence paragraph. You
have to be a longtime newspaperman, a pro’s pro, to understand how to
wield that particular literary device.

The one-sentence paragraph is not something they teach you in “j school.”

You learn it in the trenches.

Next, I appreciate the way in which McNulty is responsive to his
readers’ intelligence level. He really breaks it down for them in a way
the half-literate rabble can understand. He writes:

Whether you are considered conservative or liberal often depends.
‘Different issues elicit different postures, and ultimately different
alliances,’ deputy editorial page editor John McCormick told me recently.

As an example, one person I know is a social liberal in the sense
of the responsibility of government and other positions usually
associated with Democrats. At the same time, that person is very much
opposed to abortion and shares ideas with many Republicans. Which label
should be applied?

I hear you, brother. You’ve described my political views to a tee
(except for that bit about the “responsibilty of government.” You know
what I always say: The federal government’s only good for printing
money and keeping a standing army!)

In fact, I was right along with McNulty all the way until he said
this: “What was glaringly obvious was that women are underrepresented
among columnists.” What is he talking about? Look at the Ladies Pages.
Why, at my paper, both the shopping and gardening columnist — not to
mention that girl who writes about the new hat collections each fall
and spring — are all female.

Luckily, it was pretty clear that the Commentary editor (a woman, if
you can believe it!) shrugged off his overheated worries. “It’s a very
male field,” she told him.

Anyway, after a treacherous 30 days of reading each new edition of his
paper’s op-ed page, McNulty arrives at a gripping conclusion. “The
op-ed page seemed balanced to me in terms of topics or issues of the
day. I must admit I was surprised to see that the political opinion
also evened out if you looked at it for longer than a few days.”

Phew! Kudos, my friend! Next time I’m in Chicago, Tim, the Martinis (or Bradfords) are on me. I can tell that you know the difference. • 14 September 2007